Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was a spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sunday night’s Oscars started with a permission slip from Jimmy Kimmel for award winners to make social and political statements in their acceptance speeches.
“You have an opportunity and a platform to remind millions of people about important things like equal rights and equal treatment,” Kimmel said. “If you want to encourage others to join the amazing students at Parkland at their march on the 24th, do that,” he said, referring to the students who are demanding greater gun control after a massacre at their Florida high school.
In fact, Kimmel joked, “if you are a nominee tonight who isn’t making history, shame on you.”
Some award-winners and presenters took Kimmel’s suggestion in a ceremony that was rife with politics: those who tuned in hoping to see Hollywood vent on hot-button political and social issues from #MeToo to immigration to guns to sexual identity had an earful.
That people are interested in hearing what the movie industry has to say about these things should signal an opening.
Indeed, if there were ever a year that argued for a new award category for films – best social message – this was it. It is time for Hollywood to push the envelope, and fully acknowledge that the power it has for social change goes well beyond speeches on Oscar night. Make it official, encourage the making of movies that prick the social conscience – and give it a statue.
The filmmakers and actors certainly seem urgently up for it. At the Oscars ceremony, actor-presenters Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani talked about being dreamers – an apparent reference to immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Nominee and director Greta Gerwig reminded us of the need to understand facts.
Accepting his award for best animated feature, “Coco” director Lee Unkrich remarked that “marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.” Frances McDormand, in her speech after winning the award for best actress, called on the industry to finance projects by women and demand a rider in an actor’s contract that requires a diverse cast and crew.
And in a performance that perhaps most directly engaged the political tension of the moment, rapper Common slammed the NRA and President Donald Trump. “Tell the NRA they in God’s way,” he rapped. “These days we dance between love and hate A president that chose with hate He don’t control our fate.” He was performing, with Andra Day, the Oscar-nominated song “Stand Up for Something” (from “Marshall” – a drama about the first African-American Supreme Court justice,Thurgood Marshall).
So many of the films nominated for this year’s awards told stories with strong social messages – and these resonate with moviegoers. “Darkest Hour” was about standing up for what’s moral even when it contravenes prevailing wisdom. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was about justice for victims of crime.
“Call Me By Your Name” was about the fear of being judged for your sexual identity. “Get Out” was about racism. “Lady Bird” was about trying to rise above one’s social class. “The Post” was about exposing the truth. “Icarus” was about the importance of telling the truth. “The Shape of Water” was about the perceived inhumanity of people who don’t conform.
When Guillermo del Toro accepted his award for best director for the film, he argued that “the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand … when the world tells us to make them deeper.”
Indeed, nothing elicits more compassion from people than “the identified individual victim, with a face and a name,” according to University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic. For example, one study found that when people were told the story of Rokia, a 7-year old girl in Mali described as “desperately poor” and facing possible starvation, they were willing to donate more money than when they were just given statistics about hunger in Africa.
Telling stories such as these is how Hollywood can really catalyze political and social change. During Sunday’s ceremony, Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek – women who have all accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse (which he denies) – introduced a powerful montage of film clips and industry stars engaging the issues raised in films.
It’s time for the Academy to codify the industry’s role. A new “best social message” Oscar category would do just that. It would push filmmakers to think more deeply about how they can effectively weigh in on social and political debates. And it would give actual heft to the political pronouncements on Oscar night.
Currently, the Oscars reward excellence in tradecraft. But the most laudable men and women in cinema apply their skills in the service of a higher cause: speaking to the hearts and minds of their audiences. We need more movies that can make a difference.